Relationship between COVID-related stressors and internalizing symptoms: Gendered neuroendocrine risk profiles

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Journal Article

The COVID-19 pandemic generated significant life stress and increases in internalizing disorders. Moreover, COVID-related stressors disproportionately impacted women, consistent with outcomes showing a gender gap in stress-related disorders. Gender-related stress vulnerability emerges in adolescence alongside gender-specific changes in neuroendocrine signaling. Most research on the neuroendocrinology of stress-related disorders has focused on differences in the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis effector hormone cortisol. More recent studies, however, emphasize dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA), a neuroprotective and neuroactive hormone released concurrently with cortisol that balances its biobehavioral actions during stress. Notably, women show lower cortisol responses and higher DHEA responses to stress. However, lower cortisol and higher DHEA are associated with internalizing disorders in women, while those associations are opposite in men. Thus, gender-specific factors perhaps result in a neuroendocrine profile that places women at greater risk for stress-related disorders. The current study prospectively examined socially evaluated cold-pressor task (SECPT) induced neuroendocrine responses at age 15 and internalizing symptoms during the COVID-19 pandemic at age 21 in a cohort of 175 primarily Black low-socioeconomic status participants, while controlling for internalizing symptoms at age 15. The association between COVID-related stress and internalizing symptoms was not stronger in women. Lower DHEA-cortisol ratios were associated with a weaker relationship between COVID-related stress and internalizing symptoms in women, while higher ratios were associated with a weaker relationship in men. These findings suggest gender differences in the relationship between DHEA and cortisol and internalizing outcomes during a stressful period, and support differential neuroendocrine protective and risk pathways for young men and women.

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